The Kennedy Legacy

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Kennedys make rare visit to Dallas, say RFK questioned ‘lone gunman’ theory in JFK assassination

A rare public appearance in Dallas this weekend by relatives of President John F. Kennedy was filled with political discussion and personal reminiscences, with only occasional attention to the tragedy that has linked the family and city for 50 years.

In a round-table discussion Friday night in the Dallas Arts District, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the president’s brother and attorney general, said his father publicly supported the official Warren Commission conclusion that the president was killed in Dealey Plaza by a lone gunman.

“In private, he was dismissive of it,” he said. “My father believed the Warren report was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. and his sister, Rory, were guests of PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose, who interviewed them for an hour and a half on a sparsely decorated stage at the Winspear Opera House.

Robert Kennedy Jr. said his father was concerned enough about the accuracy of the Warren report that he asked Justice Department investigators to informally look into allegations that the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had received aid from the Mafia, the CIA or other organizations.

He said the staff members found phone lists linking Jack Ruby, Oswald’s assassin, to organized crime figures with ties to the CIA, convincing the elder Kennedy that there was something to the allegations.

The attorney general refrained from voicing his doubts in public, his son said, because he believed that with the issue of civil rights then gripping the country, “it was a distraction for him to make this a principal issue.”

Though talk about the aftermath of the assassination surfaced several times during the evening, most of the discussion centered on life in the Kennedy family.

Robert Kennedy Jr., 58, an environmentalist and lawyer, is the third of Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s 11 children. Rory Kennedy, 44, is the youngest and an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.

Rory Kennedy said her father was shy but passionate about issues. Her uncle, the president, was more aloof, but the more comfortable with retail politics.

Despite the difference in personalities, she said, “it’s hard to imagine two brothers being closer.”

Much of the evening was lighthearted, with Robert Kennedy Jr. entertaining the audience with stories about growing up in the most famous family in America.

He told about a family party in which a borrowed elephant charged at Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, and how boxing champion Muhammad Ali tried a zip line on the property, only to collide with a blue spruce.

He also recalled that when he was 8 years old, he asked for a meeting with his uncle to discuss environmental issues.

The younger Kennedy entered the Oval Office with a salamander as a gift. The amphibian had died en route, but he presented it to the president anyway.

“I was in denial,” he said.

The president kept poking at the salamander, he recalled, announcing “he doesn’t look too well.”

“I had to admit there was a startling lack of animation,” Robert Kennedy Jr. recalled.

Other recollections were more sobering.

The president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, spent much of the five years after his 1963 assassination outside the United States because she was shocked at the level of violence here.

The attorney general read books extensively during that period, his children said.

“He read the Greeks,” Robert Kennedy Jr. said. “He read the Catholic scholars, and he read the poets, Emerson and Keats, trying to figure out why a just God would allow injustice of this magnitude

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So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
John F. Kennedy, American University, Washington DC, June 10, 1963

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Some new photos of Jack Kennedy Schlossberg, JFK’s grandson at the Kennedy Presidential Library. Sorry about the watermarks! On Sunday, October 14, the Kennedy Presidential Library hosted a major symposium that drew more than 300 visitors to hear historians, scholars, journalists, and descendants of world leaders reflect on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sergei Khrushchev, Brown University Senior Fellow and son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson, and son of Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg, met for the first time at the symposium, five decades after President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev began their precarious two week confrontation

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Cuban missile crisis beliefs endure after 50 years

HAVANA — The world stood at the brink of Armageddon for 13 days in October 1962 when President John F. Kennedy drew a symbolic line in the Atlantic and warned of dire consequences if Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev dared to cross it.

An American U-2 spy plane flying high over Cuba had snapped aerial photographs of Soviet ballistic missile sites that could launch nuclear warheads with little warning at the United States, just 90 miles away. It was the height of the Cold War, and many people feared nuclear war would annihilate human civilization.

Soviet Ships carrying nuclear equipment steamed toward Kennedy’s ”quarantine” zonde around the island, but turned around before reaching the line. ”We’re eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” U.S Secretary of State Dean Rusk famosly said, a quote that largely came to be seen as defining the crisis.

In the five decades since the nuclear standoff between Washington and Moscow, much of the long-held conventional wisdom about the missile crisis has been knocked down, including the common belief that Kennedy’s bold brinksmanship ruled the day.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians now say it was behind-the-scenes compromise rather than a high-stakes game of chicken that resolved the faceoff, that both Washington and Moscow wound up winners and that the crisis lasted far longer than 13 days.

Declassified documents, oral histories and accounts from decision-makers involved in the standoff have turned up new information that scholars say provides lessons for leaders embroiled in contemporary crises such as the one in Syria

Another modern standoff is over Iran, which the West accuses of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. “Take Iran, which I have called a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion,” said Graham Allison, author of the groundbreaking study of governmental decision-making “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

"This same process is looming on the current trajectory, inexorably, toward a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state," Allison said.

"Kennedy’s idea would be, ‘Don’t let this reach the point of confrontation,’" he added. "The risks of catastrophe are too great."

Among the common beliefs about the Cuban missile crisis that have been reevaluated:

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The crisis was a triumph of U.S. brinkmanship.

REALITY: Historians say the resolution of the standoff was really a triumph of backdoor diplomacy.

Kennedy resisted pressure from aides advising that he cede nothing to Moscow and even consider a preemptive strike. He instead engaged in intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Soviets, other countries and the U.N. secretary-general.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador on Oct. 27 and conveyed an olive branch from his brother: Washington would publicly reject any invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev would withdraw the missiles from the island. The real sweetener was that Kennedy would withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from U.S. installations in Turkey, near the Soviet border. It was a secret pledge known only to a handful of presidential advisers that did not emerge until years later.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Washington won, and Moscow lost.

REALITY: The United States came out a winner, but so did the Soviet Union.

The Jupiter missiles are sometimes described as nearly obsolete, but they had come online just months earlier and were fully capable of striking into the Soviet Union. Their withdrawal, along with Kennedy’s assurance he would not invade Cuba, gave Khrushchev enough to feel he had saved face and the following day he announced the imminent dismantling of offensive weapons in Cuba.

Soon after, a U.S.-Soviet presidential hotline was established and the two nations initiated discussions that led to the Limited Test Ban treaty and ultimately the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: The crisis lasted just 13 days.

REALITY: This myth has been perpetuated in part by the title of Robert F. Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, “Thirteen Days.”

Indeed it was 13 days from Oct. 16, when Kennedy was first told about the missiles, to Oct. 28, when the Soviets announced their withdrawal.

But the “October Crisis,” as it is known in Cuba, dragged on for another tense month or so in what Kornbluh dubs the “November Extension,” as Washington and Moscow haggled over details of exactly what weapons would be removed.

Conference today at JFK Library

The JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston will host a conference at 12:30 p.m. today to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Participants include Sergei Khrushchev, Brown University senior fellow and son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Jack Schlossberg, President Kennedy’s grandson.

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60 tape reveals an uncertain JFK: Before victory, misgivings over abilities, future

WASHINGTON — It’s a rare glimpse of the introspective John F. Kennedy — unsure of his political skills; worried about what he might do if he lost the race; and surprisingly honest about his poor health and his attempts to deceive the press over it.

Three days after he declared his candidacy for the presidency, the man who would leave a near-mythical imprint on America’s political identity seemed decidedly unsure of his own.

That revelation comes from a recently unearthed audio recording made during a private dinner party that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Jacqueline, hosted in their Georgetown home on Jan. 5, 1960. The tape was given to the JFK Library and Museum in Dorchester last year and was recently discovered by a Brown University historian.

At the dinner party, the recording reveals, Kennedy said he never dreamed of the presidency when he entered politics as a scrawny candidate for Congress in 1946.

“Never. Never. Never,” the future president insisted. “I thought maybe I’d be governor of Massachusetts one day.”

What was irresistible about the decision to seek the presidency, the Harvard alumnus explained to his three guests, was the excitement and challenge of the race itself — “like playing Yale every Saturday, in a sense” — and his unabashed desire to be at the center of the nation’s momentous decisions.

The guests were Newsweek correspondent James M. Cannon and Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee, who later ran the Washington Post, and his wife, Antionette. Bradlee and Cannon were longtime friends of Kennedy and did not report on the conversation.

Cannon’s family gave the tape to the library, and the content will be featured in next month’s Smithsonian magazine. Bradlee did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Ted Widmer, the Brown University historian, said Tuesday that when he came across the tape in his research, “I was just knocked out by it.”

“I thought it was very visceral and immediate, and quite personal. JFK was one of the most successful politicians of the 20th century but he is candid about his liabilities and his inhibitions,” he said. Widmer also said Kennedy’s explanations for why he was seeking the presidency seem strikingly honest.

At one point in the conversation, for example, Kennedy makes another football analogy.

“Johnny Unitas, he might find it interesting to play in a sandlot team, in front of four people, but he’s playing for the Colts, the best team in the United States, for the world championship,” he said. “I’m not comparing the presidency with that, but I’m just saying that, how could it be more fascinating than to run for president under the obstacles and the hurdles that are before me.”

Kennedy “is interested in being at the center of the machinery of government, the center of the action,” said Widmer, rather than seeking the presidency for the lofty goals he outlined in his campaign to secure the Democratic nomination and ultimately defeat Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The recording portrays a JFK not so sure of himself as he set out on his historic quest, hoping that the electorate sought a new kind of leader who was not necessarily the back-slapping campaigner like his grandfather, the former congressman and Boston mayor John Fitzgerald.

“I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician,” Kennedy said. “What he loved to do was what politicians are expected to do. Now I just think that today… . I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else. I’d rather go out to dinner.”

He later added: “I had not regarded myself as a political type. My father didn’t, he thought I was hopeless.”

But politics attracted him in part, he said, because the alternatives for someone of his social and academic station were so unappealing.

“If [I] went to law school, and I’d gotten out, which I was going to do [unclear] and then I go and become a member of a big firm, and I’m dealing with some dead, deceased man’s estate, or I’m perhaps fighting in a divorce case … or some fellow got in an accident … or let’s say more serious work, when you’re participating in a case against the DuPont company in a general antitrust case, which takes two or three years, can you tell me that that compares in interest with being a member of Congress in trying to write a labor bill, or trying to make a speech on foreign policy?’’ Kennedy said. “I just think that there’s no comparison.”

Throughout the discussion, Kennedy’s famous flowing public voice is instead choppy and often inarticulate. Also, he sounds uncharacteristically vulnerable.

For example, the possibility of losing the election weighed heavily on him.

“I wouldn’t like to try to pick up my life at 45, -6, or -7, and start after 20 years of being in politics, and try to pick up my life then,’’ he said, adding, “Maybe need a different degree. I mean, it’s like having your leg up to your ankle or to your knee amputated, it’s still disturbing.”

Antionette Bradlee asked Kennedy, who had already written two books, if he might pursue a career in writing if politics didn’t work out.

“No, I couldn’t, because I’ve lost the chance. I mean, I’m sure it takes 20 years to learn to be a decent writer,” he responded. “You have to do it every day.”

When a recently published photo of him as a young man looking sickly came up in the discussion, Kennedy spoke of his personal medical problems, which became known publicly years after his 1963 assassination. Such problems would probably have been disqualifying if known to voters.

“There’s a picture that the Boston Globe ran Sunday, which had the veterans rally [in 1948] … Franklin Roosevelt [Jr.] and I, and I looked like a cadaver,” Kennedy recalled, noting his unusual pallor.

When asked about what was wrong with him, he responded, “Addison’s disease, they said I have.”

He then noted that a reporter “asked me today if I have it.” He denied it to the reporter, saying he was just sun-tanned. “I said no, God, a guy with Addison’s disease looks sort of brown and everything,” Kennedy told his guests, who burst out in laughter. “Christ! See, that’s the sun.”

But natural politician or not, Kennedy said he thought the ingredients to win were not all that complicated.

“You have to be able to communicate a sense of conviction and intelligence and rather, some integrity,” he said.


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Kennedy, Before Choosing the Moon: ‘I’m Not That Interested in Space’

The language was, almost literally, soaring. “We set sail on this new sea,” President Kennedy told the country, “because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” We choose exploration, he declared, for ourselves and for all nations. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

And, of course, we found what we sought. We came in peace for all mankind, and we set foot on the moon. In light of our success, that step took on a sheen not only of epicness — Homer, into the heavens’ wine-dark sea — but also of inevitability. A man on the moon, its image plunged into the public imagination 50 years ago, came to symbolize striving and dreaming and insisting with a power that still captivates us today.

So it’s easy to forget how ambivalent Kennedy was, initially, about the space program. It’s easy to forget how ambivalent he was, initially, about space itself. As the president put it, bluntly, in a 1962 meeting with advisors and NASA administrators: “I’m not that interested in space.”

And that was, it seems, a longstanding apathy. When Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator in the late 1950s, Richard Collin writes in John F. Kennedy: History, Memory, Legacy, he and Robert Kennedy agreed to meet the MIT professor and aerospace pioneer Charles Draper at a Boston restaurant. During the dinner, Draper later recalled, the brothers essentially ridiculed his pitch for space exploration — not cruelly, but with the kind of patient disbelief usually reserved for those who hold hopeless dreams. The politicians, Collin reports, “could not be convinced that all rockets were not a waste of money and space navigation even worse.”

That attitude would continue into the Kennedy presidency. Hugh Sidey, Life magazine’s White House correspondent, emphasized space exploration as Kennedy’s weakest area during his first few months in office. The new president understood less about that field, Collin notes, than about any other issue he’d been confronted with when assuming office. And Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy’s own science adviser, confirmed that view: When it came to space, Wiesner said of his boss, “he hadn’t thought much about it.”

If Kennedy wasn’t inspired by space itself, though, he was inspired by political victories. In April of 1961, just months after the president’s inauguration, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into space. Less than a week after Gagarin’s orbit came the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy, in need of a political victory both for his administration and against the Soviets, turned to his vice president — who, unlike Kennedy himself, had been a longtime space advocate. (“Control of space,” Johnson had put it in 1958, “is control of the world.”) Johnson, at the time, was serving as chairman of a newly reorganized Space Council. Kennedy asked him for recommendations on how to accelerate the U.S. space program — not in the name of heavenly exploration, but in the name of a slightly more earthly goal:

Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?

The president asked for a response “at the earliest possible moment.” A week later, Johnson — basing his assessment in part on a Defense Department suggestion that “dramatic achievements in space … symbolize the technological power and organizing capability of a nation” — responded with a five-and-a-half-page memo. It emphasized, among Kennedy’s list of potentially Soviet-shaming projects, the manned trip to the moon:

… As for a manned trip around the Moon or a safe landing and return by a man to the Moon, neither the United States nor the U.S.S.R. has such a capability at this time, so far as we know. The Russians have had more experience with large boosters and with flights of dogs and man. Hence they might be conceded a time advantage in circumnavigation of the Moon and also in a manned trip to the Moon. However, with a strong effort the United States could conceivably be first in these accomplishments by 1966 or 1967 …

The moon, it’s worth noting, was selected with geopolitical as well as technological strategy in mind. And it was selected not by Kennedy himself, but by his space agency. In 1959, NASA administrators were tasked with choosing a space exploration goal that would best utilize American potential in space — and the agency determined that a manned lunar landing would make the most fitting and practical successor to Alan Shepard’s planned orbit of Earth. The Apollo program, true to Kennedy’s rhetoric, was finally implemented not as a proactive measure against the Soviets, but as a reactive one. “Kennedy was interested in space as a symbol of political power,” the historian Dwayne Day writes, “but it was only after the Soviet Union increased the political stakes that Kennedy approved the lunar landing program.”

And it was through a process of negotiation that the program’s timetable was determined. Responding to pushback from NASA, Kennedy would publicly amend Johnson’s aspirational lunar timetable — from five or six years, starting in 1961, to ten. The president had crafted a goal that would serve his political if not personal interest: to go to the moon. And to go “in this decade.” Not because it was easy, but because it was expedient. “The Soviet Union has made this a test of the system,” Kennedy would later tell a group of advisors and NASA administrators. “So that’s why we’re doing it.”

On May 5, 1962, Shepard repeated Gagarin’s accomplishment, becoming the first American in space. On May 25, Kennedy gave a speech to Congress asking the country to commit itself “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Already, Kennedy’s ideological argument was taking the soaring tinge so familiar in his subsequent discussions of space. “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,” he argued,

the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take …. Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

From expediency to enterprise. From steps to strides. From earth’s muddy present to its gleaming future. That might complicate the story of aspiration and exploration that we’ve come to associate with Kennedy and with Earth’s earliest forays into space. It might emphasize the way the dullest features of humanity — competition, vindication, pride — helped propel human soles to the lunar surface. Then again, it doesn’t change the impact of the all-too-earthly decisions made those fifty years ago. We chose, either way, to go to the moon. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

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